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Rob Hardy: 'Charlie Chan'


Rob Hardy



Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot are among the most famous of literary characters. They may have had their eccentricities, but being of an exotic or foreign racial extraction was not among them. It''s different for another famous shamus, Charlie Chan; I know detective fiction fans might be able to think of some other non-white gumshoe, but he''s the only one who comes to my mind.  


Chan did all the detective work those other sleuths did but in an honorable and modest way that was quite different, and all the while he mouthed amusing aphorisms that would have fit well inside a fortune cookie ("The wise elephant does not seek to ape the butterfly."). It says something that while none of those other detectives is at all controversial, Charlie Chan has at times been at the center of racial controversy.  


Chan''s controversies, his origins, his portrayals in film, and his continuing appeal are the themes within "Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History" (Norton) by Yunte Huang.  


Huang is from China, but is an American citizen and professor of English. In his graduate student days, he came upon "Charlie Chan" books at a garage sale and became a fan. He has turned his literary skills, as well as big dollops of history, onto the Chan case, and obviously enjoys letting us know about the often surprising facts he has uncovered. His book is a cheerful and insightful appreciation that will help anyone more deeply understand Chan''s illustrious career. 


Chan was the brainchild of Earl Derr Biggers, who grew up in Ohio and graduated from Harvard, where he had written for the Lampoon. He was a newspaperman and wrote humorous pieces after his graduation, and had a real success with his first mystery, "Seven Keys to Baldpate" in 1913. It wasn''t until 1925 that he returned to the mystery genre, with "The House Without a Key," the book in which Charlie Chan first appeared. Chan only shows up halfway through the book and then as a minor character, who arrives at the scene of a crime behind the police captain and a coroner.  


"He was very fat indeed," wrote Biggers, "yet he walked with the light dainty steps of a woman. His cheeks were as chubby as a baby''s, his skin ivory tinted, his black hair close-cropped, his amber eyes slanting." The woman inside whose premises a dead body has been found is astonished, even after the officials explain that Chan is the best detective on the force; Miss Minerva Winterslip exclaims, "But -- he''s a Chinaman!" 


His racial identity did not impair his ability to solve the crime of the dead body on her veranda, and readers were intrigued by the bowing, courteous, quiet Chinese detective. They wanted more, and Biggers was to deliver a total of six novels before his death at 48 in 1933. Huang explores the tenuous connection of the fictional Chan to the "real" Chan, who was actually named Chang Apana.  


Apana was the son of a Chinese plantation worker and a Hawaiian mother, who started work as a humane officer in Honolulu, Hawaii, and became a detective on the police force. He was not much like Charlie Chan. He was a wiry little man who was illiterate. He was smart, and fearless, and he could assume disguises that would allow him to gain an inside knowledge of such criminal endeavors as opium or gambling dens.  


He was, unlike Chan, a man of action and intimidation, using a bullwhip to help him subdue miscreants; he also wore a cowboy hat, both carryovers from his days as a Hawaiian cowboy. Biggers said that he had read a newspaper article about one of Apana''s arrests, and this inspired his creation of Chan, but Huang could not find any such articles. At the very least, people who read the Chan stories associated Apana with Chan, and Biggers was happily disposed to promote the connection. When Biggers visited Honolulu at the height of his books'' popularity, he met Apana and the two got on famously. The detective told him about a recent murder case he had solved by asking a subject, "Why you wear new shoes this morning?" Sure enough, the line turned up in a later Chan book. Biggers was glad to have the Chan/Apana connection, and so was Apana, who happily autographed Charlie Chan books for locals and tourists.  


Apana would also ally himself with Warner Oland, a Swedish actor who first came to some cinematic attention playing the disappointed Jewish father in "The Jazz Singer" of 1927. Oland said he had some Mongolian blood via his Russian mother, and this allowed him to forgo any special oriental make-up. (It was his specialty; besides playing the gentle good-guy Chan, he played the demonic super-villain Fu Manchu in the movies from the "Sax Rohmer" books.)  


When The Black Camel was being filmed in Hawaii in 1931, Apana was on the set, and according to a newspaper report "derived great amusement form the words put into his mouth." Oland and Chang Apana got along well, and Oland puckishly inscribed a photo: "To my dear friend, Charlie Chang, ''The bravest of all,'' with best of luck, from the new ''Charlie Chan,'' Warner Oland." 


Charlie Chan has also been through a spell of vilification. In the racially-sensitive 1980s, Chinese intellectuals cited his origin from a white author, and his being played by a white actor in yellowface, as signs that Chan was nothing more than an oriental Uncle Tom, whose embarrassing humility and sing-song proverbs would be best forgotten. There is some racial parody and stereotyping, Huang accepts, in the Chan character, but it was part of the art forms of the period in which Chan was born. Significantly, the Chan films were endorsed and uncensored when they were screened in China itself. After all, Chan was funny, he was smarter than the non-Chinese around him, and he always solved the crime. The best words on the subject of whether Chan was demeaning to the Chinese came from Keye Luke, the Canton-born American actor who played Charlie''s No. 1 son. "They think it demeans the race... Demeans!" he exclaimed. "My God! You''ve got a Chinese hero!" 


Huang has used the stories of Biggers, Oland and Apana to examine such big topics as Hawaiian cultural history, the Asian-American experience, and racism toward the Chinese. At heart, though, he has a keen appreciation of the entertainment the books and movies offer (not to mention the radio shows, comics, cartoons and board games). To learn what went on behind Bigger''s creation of Chan, and Hollywood''s manifestation of the great detective will help anyone enjoy the films more deeply. After all, as Chan himself said (there is a list of "Charlie Chanisms" in an appendix), "Front seldom tell truth. To know occupants of house, always look in back yard." 



Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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